By ANNE SIEGEL
MILWAUKEE, WI – Some funny anecdotes were once relayed by playwright Catherine Trieschmann to Milwaukee Repertory Theater Artistic Director Mark Clements. They initially led to a few laughs between friends. At the time, Trieschmann was writing some humorous essays about her experiences with other theater groups.
Inspired by these stories, Clements urged her to write them down as a play. Their conversation eventually led to the creation of The Nativity Variations, the play now showing at the Milwaukee Rep.
For its world premiere, the play is being staged in the Rep’s mainstage theater, the Quadracci Powerhouse. Although the play has a relatively small cast for such a large venue, director Shelley Butler makes audiences feel as if they are sitting in the play’s rehearsal space. This feeling is essential for getting the full wallop of all the hijinks that follow, as this struggling theater company attempts a more avant-garde approach to the timeless Christmas story.
Here are the particulars: the Prairie Players, a community theater in a small midwestern town, has been invited to produce the annual Christmas pageant sponsored by an Episcopal church. The church pastor has promised them most of the ticket receipts from a guaranteed “full house” on opening night.
But here’s the hitch: the pastor, Father Juan, must first approve the production.
The company’s founder and director, Jules, wonders why she was asked to produce the show. After all, her company is known for producing avant-garde works designed to shock local audiences (although the group reverts to staging Neil Simon comedies when it runs low on funds).
Anyone who is familiar with community theater (as seen in the film, “Waiting for Guffman”), will realize that the actor’s personalities and relationships are as much a part of the production as the script. This hodgepodge troupe of actors includes a couple of newbies who were “hired” after some cast members left the show, plus a few regulars and an unmarried couple who have recently split up.
The goal for all of them is finding a way to put their attitudes aside and focus on realizing the director’s vision. This is no easy task.
As one might expect, a great deal of squabbling ensues between the actors. This provides some of the show’s early humor. For instance, some of the company’s “professional” actors immediately recite their pitiful (and laughable) acting credits for the benefit of the newer members. Eventually, one of them admits they all have unglamorous “day jobs” to pay the bills.
Before the director arrives, the actors’ pre-rehearsal preparations (which range from tai-chi moves to yoga lunges to loud verbal exercises) is typical. But it’s still very funny to watch. The more time you have spent with actors in general, the funnier this show will be.
Once rehearsal begins, the director spews a great deal of supposedly deep (but mostly nonsensical psychobabble) about their goals for this production. The more seasoned actors nod as if understanding the gist of what the director is saying, but the newbies are completely clueless. One of them, a balding retiree who was coaxed by his wife to audition, cannot even tell upstage from downstage.
Sometimes, a great deal of truth is revealed between the laughs. One actor pauses during rehearsal to make a heartfelt confession. He says that the rest of his life is “so shitty,” with a humdrum job, little income, and no family at home, that he looks forward to rehearsals as a much-needed diversion. “It’s the highlight of my day,” he says, dejectedly.
Eventually, the group attempts several versions of the nativity story. Each one is more outrageous than the last. Their first attempt reflects a Greek tragedy, complete with flowing togas and copious amounts of stage blood (which one of the actors expertly concocts onstage).
The pastor isn’t impressed. He asks Jules to make the production “less Beckett and more Shakespearean.”
As a result, the next version appears in a flowery Renaissance setting. Some of the men are now cast as female characters, a fact that doesn’t sit well with the women actors. One of them even stages a mid-rehearsal protest regarding the director’s decisions.
When the scene resumes, a male nurse from “Romeo and Juliet” finds her mistress Mary in tears. When the bearded Mary uses a falsetto voice to describe her pregnancy, the nurse hatches a crazy plot that goes downhill almost immediately. At one point, Joseph is threatened by the appearance of a heavenly angel. The angel gives Joseph a choice: agree to marry his betrothed, or have his manhood chopped off.
Not surprisingly, this version is also nixed by the gentle-spoken Father Juan, He suggests that Jules should reduce the story to something that even a young child could understand.
One of the actors, Karl, is also a well-known puppeteer. He brings numerous hand puppets to use in a version that quickly becomes more Avenue Q than “Sesame Street.” This is especially apparent with Hank, the older, unemployed man whose finances are so shaky that his house is facing foreclosure. He is secretly ashamed of the fact he can no longer “provide” for Peggy, his wife of many decades.
Hank’s puppet, using crude gestures and language (mainly obscenities), gives Hank a way of expressing his anger and fear.
In between the laugh-out-loud situations posed in The Nativity Variations, the audience gets to know and care about the play’s characters. As Jules, Sami Ma embodies the feisty, never-say-die qualities necessary for survival in a community-theater world. When she tells Father Juan that she doesn’t even believe in Christianity, she thinks it will shock him. It doesn’t. Father Juan says he knows about the stress facing her family (her parents are members of his congregation). He thought the Christmas pageant might help her deal with her grief.
Adam LeFevre and Ann Arvia create a creditable older couple in Hank and Peggy. Ariva temporarily drops her ever-sunny outlook to remind her husband that they have been through bad stretches before. LeFevre, perhaps realizing his wife’s inner strength for the first time, shows gratitude for having her in his life.
The younger, unmarried couple is portrayed by Ryan Alvarado (who also plays Father Juan) and Sadieh Rifai. During rehearsals, they find a way to work through their personal issues. However, their future is not assured.
Finally, there’s Vanessa (Eva Nimmer), whose voice is audible throughout the production as the mostly unseen stage manager. Her character is also an all-round gofer and somewhat of a director whisperer. Nimmer is effective in her minor role.
Finally, noted Milwaukee actor Chiké Johnson demonstrates his comedic as well as dramatic skill as Karl. Karl and Jules go back a long way, and their previous theatrical projects come into sharp focus. Johnson is the Tom Hanks of The Nativity Variations: the everyman who strives to make things work out for everyone around him. Johnson delivers many of the best laugh lines (no spoilers here) and could easily steal the show, if that’s what he wanted. Happily, Johnson works hard not to blend into the ensemble.
Supporting the play’s technical efforts are several intentionally makeshift set designs by Takeshi Kata. Costumes are by Sara Ryung Clement, including Karl’s flashy but unwieldy angel outfit. Lighting is by Alan C. Edwards, with sound design by Sinan Refik Zafar.
By the end of The Nativity Variations, the audience is left chuckling over the events they’ve just witnessed. But they are also filled with admiration and compassion for all the characters, as misguided (and human) as they may be. That’s perhaps the best compliment one can hand to a director.
The Nativity Variations plays through December 11 at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. For tickets and more information, click here, or contact the box office at 414-224-9490. Masks are not required but strongly encouraged inside the theater.